Swami Vivekananda's inspiring personality was well known both in India and in
America during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of
the twentieth. The unknown monk of India suddenly leapt into fame at the
Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893, at which he represented
Hinduism. His vast knowledge of Eastern and Western culture as well as his
deep spiritual insight, fervid eloquence, brilliant conversation, broad human
sympathy, colourful personality, and handsome figure made an irresistible
appeal to the many types of Americans who came in contact with him. People
who saw or heard Vivekananda even once still cherish his memory after a lapse
of more than half a century.
In America Vivekananda's mission was the interpretation of India's spiritual
culture, especially in its Vedantic setting. He also tried to enrich the religious
consciousness of the Americans through the rational and humanistic teachings
of the Vedanta philosophy. In America he became India's spiritual ambassador
and pleaded eloquently for better understanding between India and the New
World in order to create a healthy synthesis of East and West, of religion and
In his own motherland Vivekananda is regarded as the patriot saint of modern
India and an inspirer of her dormant national consciousness. To the Hindus he
preached the ideal of a strength-giving and man-making religion. Service to man
as the visible manifestation of the Godhead was the special form of worship he
advocated for the Indians, devoted as they were to the rituals and myths of their
ancient faith. Many political leaders of India have publicly acknowledged their
indebtedness to Swami Vivekananda.
The Swami's mission was both national and international. A lover of mankind,
he strove to promote peace and human brotherhood on the spiritual foundation
of the Vedantic Oneness of existence. A mystic of the highest order, Vivekananda
had a direct and intuitive experience of Reality. He derived his ideas from that
unfailing source of wisdom and often presented them in the soul-stirring
language of poetry.
The natural tendency of Vivekananda's mind, like that of his Master,
Ramakrishna, was to soar above the world and forget itself in contemplation of
the Absolute. But another part of his personality bled at the sight of human
suffering in East and West alike. It might appear that his mind seldom found a
point of rest in its oscillation between contemplation of God and service to man.
Be that as it may, he chose, in obedience to a higher call, service to man as his
mission on earth; and this choice has endeared him to people in the West,
Americans in particular.
In the course of a short life of thirty-nine years (1863-1902), of which only ten
were devoted to public activities — and those, too, in the midst of acute physical
suffering — he left for posterity his four classics: Jnana-Yoga, Bhakti-Yoga,
Karma-Yoga, and Raja-Yoga, all of which are outstanding treatises on Hindu
philosophy. In addition, he delivered innumerable lectures, wrote inspired
letters in his own hand to his many friends and disciples, composed numerous
poems, and acted as spiritual guide to the many seekers who came to him for
instruction. He also organized the Ramakrishna Order of monks, which is the
most outstanding religious organization of modern India. It is devoted to the
propagation of the Hindu spiritual culture not only in the Swami's native land,
but also in America and in other parts of the world.
Swami Vivekananda once spoke of himself as a 'condensed India.' His life and
teachings are of inestimable value to the West for an understanding of the mind
of Asia. William James, the Harvard philosopher, called the Swami the 'paragon
of Vedantists.' Max Müller and Paul Deussen, the famous Orientalists of the
nineteenth century, held him in genuine respect and affection. 'His words,'
writes Romain Rolland, 'are great music, phrases in the style of Beethoven,
stirring rhythms like the march of Handel choruses. I cannot touch these
sayings of his, scattered as they are through the pages of books, at thirty years'
distance, without receiving a thrill through my body like an electric shock. And
what shocks, what transports, must have been produced when in burning words
they issued from the lips of the hero!'
Swami Vivekananda, the great soul loved and revered in East and West alike as
the rejuvenator of Hinduism in India and the preacher of its eternal truths
abroad, was born at 6:33, a few minutes before sunrise, on Monday, January 12,
1863. It was the day of the great Hindu festival Makarasamkranti, when special
worship is offered to the Ganga by millions of devotees. Thus the future
Vivekananda first drew breath when the air above the sacred river not far from
the house was reverberating with the prayers, worship, and religious music of
thousands of Hindu men and women.
Before Vivekananda was born, his mother, like many other pious Hindu
mothers, had observed religious vows, fasted, and prayed so that she might be
blessed with a son who would do honour to the family. She requested a relative
who was living in Varanasi to offer special worship to the Vireswara Siva of that
holy place and seek His blessings; for Siva, the great god of renunciation,
dominated her thought. One night she dreamt that this supreme Deity aroused
Himself from His meditation and agreed to be born as her son. When she woke
she was filled with joy.
The mother, Bhuvaneswari Devi, accepted the child as a boon from Vireswara
Siva and named him Vireswara. The family, however, gave him the name of
Narendranath Datta, calling him, for short, Narendra, or more endearingly,
The Datta family of Calcutta, into which Narendranath had been born, was well
known for its affluence, philanthropy, scholarship, and independent spirit. The
grand father, Durgacharan, after the birth of his first son, had renounced the
world in search of God. The father, Viswanath, an attorney-at-law of the High
Court of Calcutta, was versed in English and Persian literature and often
entertained himself and his friends by reciting from the Bible and the poetry of
Hafiz, both of which, he believed, contained truths unmatched by human
thinking elsewhere. He was particularly attracted to the Islamic culture, with
which he was familiar because of his close contact with the educated Moslems of
North-western India. Moreover, he derived a large income from his law practice
and, unlike his father, thoroughly enjoyed the worldly life. An expert in cookery,
he prepared rare dishes and liked to share them with his friends. Travel was
another of his hobbies. Though agnostic in religion and a mocker of social
conventions, he possessed a large heart and often went out of his way to support
idle relatives, some of whom were given to drunkenness. Once, when Narendra
protested against his lack of judgement, his father said: 'How can you
understand the great misery of human life? When you realize the depths of
men's suffering, you will sympathize with these unfortunate creatures who try to
forget their sorrows, even though only for a short while, in the oblivion created
by intoxicants.' Naren's father, however, kept a sharp eye on his children and
would not tolerate the slightest deviation from good manners.
Bhuvaneswari Devi, the mother, was cast in a different mould. Regal in
appearance and gracious in conduct, she belonged to the old tradition of Hindu
womanhood. As mistress of a large household, she devoted her spare time to
sewing and singing, being particularly fond of the great Indian epics, the
Ramayana and the Mahabharata, large portions of which she had memorized.
She became the special refuge of the poor, and commanded universal respect
because of her calm resignation to God, her inner tranquillity, and her dignified
detachment in the midst of her many arduous duties. Two sons were born to her
besides Narendranath, and four daughters, two of whom died at an early age.
Narendra grew up to be a sweet, sunny-tempered, but very restless boy. Two
nurses were necessary to keep his exuberant energy under control, and he was a
great tease to his sisters. In order to quiet him, the mother often put his head
under the cold-water tap, repeating Siva's name, which always produced the
desired effect. Naren felt a child's love for birds and animals, and this
characteristic reappeared during the last days of his life. Among his boyhood
pets were a family cow, a monkey, a goat, a peacock, and several pigeons and
guinea-pigs. The coachman of the family, with his turban, whip, and bright-
coloured livery, was his boyhood ideal of a magnificent person, and he often
expressed the ambition to be like him when he grew up.
Narendra bore a striking resemblance to the grand-father who had renounced
the world to lead a monastic life, and many thought that the latter had been
reborn in him. The youngster developed a special fancy for wandering monks,
whose very sight would greatly excite him. One day when such a monk appeared
at the door and asked for alms, Narendra gave him his only possession, the tiny
piece of new cloth that was wrapped round his waist. Thereafter, whenever a
monk was seen in the neighbourhood, Narendra would be locked in a room. But
even then he would throw out of the window whatever he found near at hand as
an offering to the holy man. In the meantime, he was receiving his early
education from his mother, who taught him the Bengali alphabet and his first
English words, as well as stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
During his childhood Narendra, like many other Hindu children of his age,
developed a love for the Hindu deities, of whom he had learnt from his mother.
Particularly attracted by the heroic story of Rama and his faithful consort Sita,
he procured their images, bedecked them with flowers, and worshipped them in
his boyish fashion. But disillusionment came when he heard someone denounce
marriage vehemently as a terrible bondage. When he had thought this over he
discarded Rama and Sita as unworthy of worship. In their place he installed the
image of Siva, the god of renunciation, who was the ideal of the yogis.
Nevertheless he retained a fondness for the Ramayana.
At this time he daily experienced a strange vision when he was about to fall
asleep. Closing his eyes, he would see between his eyebrows a ball of light of
changing colours, which would slowly expand and at last burst, bathing his
whole body in a white radiance. Watching this light he would gradually fall
asleep. Since it was a daily occurrence, he regarded the phenomenon as common
to all people, and was surprised when a friend denied ever having seen such a
thing. Years later, however, Narendra's spiritual teacher, Sri Ramakrishna, said
to him, 'Naren, my boy, do you see a light when you go to sleep?' Ramakrishna
knew that such a vision indicated a great spiritual past and an inborn habit of
meditation. The vision of light remained with Narendra until the end of his life,
though later it lost its regularity and intensity.
While still a child Narendra practised meditation with a friend before the image
of Siva. He had heard that the holy men of ancient India would become so
absorbed in contemplation of God that their hair would grow and gradually enter
into the earth, like the roots of the banyan tree. While meditating, therefore, he
would open his eyes, now and then, to see if his own hair had entered into the
earth. Even so, during meditation, he often became unconscious of the world. On
one occasion he saw in a vision a luminous person of serene countenance who
was carrying the staff and water-bowl of a monk. The apparition was about to
say something when Naren became frightened and left the room. He thought
later that perhaps this had been a vision of Buddha.
At the age of six he was sent to a primary school. One day, however, he repeated
at home some of the vulgar words that he had learnt from his classmates,
whereupon his disgusted parents took him out of the school and appointed a
private tutor, who conducted classes for him and some other children of the
neighbourhood in the worship hall of the house. Naren soon showed a precocious
mind and developed a keen memory. Very easily he learnt by heart the whole of
a Sanskrit grammar and long passages from the Ramayana and the
Mahabharata. Some of the friendships he made at this age lasted his whole
lifetime. At school he was the undisputed leader. When playing his favourite
game of 'King and the Court,' he would assume the role of the monarch and
assign to his friends the parts of the ministers, commander-in-chief, and other
state officials. He was marked from birth to be a leader of men, as his name
Narendra (lord of men) signified.
Even at that early age he questioned why one human being should be considered
superior to another. In his father's office separate tobacco pipes were provided
for clients belonging to the different castes, as orthodox Hindu custom required,
and the pipe from which the Moslems smoked was set quite apart. Narendra
once smoked tobacco from all the pipes, including the one marked for the
Moslems, and when reprimanded, remarked, 'I cannot see what difference it
During these early years, Narendra's future personality was influenced by his
gifted father and his saintly mother, both of whom kept a chastening eye upon
him. The father had his own manner of discipline. For example, when, in the
course of an argument with his mother, the impetuous boy once uttered a few
rude words and the report came to the father, Viswanath did not directly scold
his son, but wrote with charcoal on the door of his room: 'Narendra today said to
his mother — ' and added the words that had been used. He wanted Narendra's
friends to know how rudely he had treated his mother.
Another time Narendra bluntly asked his father, 'What have you done for me?'
Instead of being annoyed, Viswanath said, 'Go and look at yourself in the mirror,
and then you will know.'
Still another day, Narendra said to his father, 'How shall I conduct myself in the
'Never show surprise at anything,' his father replied.
This priceless advice enabled Narendranath, in his future chequered life, to
preserve his serenity of mind whether dwelling with princes in their palaces or
sharing the straw huts of beggars.
The mother, Bhuvaneswari, played her part in bringing out Narendranath's
innate virtues. When he told her, one day, of having been unjustly treated in
school, she said to him, in consolation: 'My child, what does it matter, if you are
in the right? Always follow the truth without caring about the result. Very often
you may have to suffer injustice or unpleasant consequences for holding to the
truth; but you must not, under any circumstances, abandon it.' Many years later
Narendranath proudly said to an audience, 'I am indebted to my mother for
whatever knowledge I have acquired.'
One day, when he was fighting with his play-fellows, Narendra accidentally fell
from the porch and struck his forehead against a stone. The wound bled
profusely and left a permanent scar over his right eye. Years later, when
Ramakrishna heard of this accident, he remarked: 'In a way it was a good thing.
If he had not thus lost some of his blood, he would have created havoc in the
world with his excessive energy.'
In 1871, at the age of eight, Narendra entered high school. His exceptional
intelligence was soon recognized by his teachers and classmates. Though at first
reluctant to study English because of its foreign origin, he soon took it up with
avidity. But the curriculum consumed very little of his time. He used most of his
inexhaustible energy in outside activities. Games of various kinds, many of
which he invented or improvised kept him occupied. He made an imitation gas-
works and a factory for aerating water, these two novelties having just been
introduced in Calcutta. He organized an amateur theatrical company and a
gymnasium, and took lessons in fencing, wrestling, rowing, and other manly
sports. He also tried his hand at the art of cooking. Intensely restless, he would
soon tire of one pastime and seek a new one. With his friends he visited the
museum and the zoological garden. He arbitrated the disputes of his play-fellows
and was a favourite with the people of the neighbourhood. Everybody admired
his courage, straight-forwardness, and simplicity.
From an early age this remarkable youth had no patience with fear or
superstition. One of his boyish pranks had been to climb a flowering tree
belonging to a neighbour, pluck the flowers, and do other mischief. The owner of
the tree, finding his remonstrances unheeded, once solemnly told Naren's friends
that the tree was guarded by a white-robed ghost who would certainly wring
their necks if they disturbed his peace. The boys were frightened and kept away.
But Narendra persuaded them to follow him back, and he climbed the tree,
enjoying his usual measure of fun, and broke some branches by way of further
mischief. Turning to his friends, he then said: 'What asses you all are! See, my
neck is still there. The old man's story is simply not true. Don't believe what
others say unless you your-selves know it to be true.'
These simple but bold words were an indication of his future message to the
world. Addressing large audiences in the later years, he would often say: 'Do not
believe in a thing because you have read about it in a book. Do not believe in a
thing because another man has said it was true. Do not believe in words because
they are hallowed by tradition. Find out the truth for yourself. Reason it out.
That is realization.'
The following incident illustrates his courage and presence of mind. He one day
wished to set up a heavy trapeze in the gymnasium, and so asked the help of
some people who were there. Among them was an English sailor. The trapeze
fell and knocked the sailor unconscious, and the crowd, thinking him dead, ran
away for fear of the police. But Naren tore a piece from his cloth, bandaged the
sailor's wound, washed his face with water, and gradually revived him. Then he
moved the wounded man to a neighbouring schoolhouse where he nursed him for
a week. When the sailor had recovered, Naren sent him away with a little purse
collected from his friends.
All through this period of boyish play Narendra retained his admiration for the
life of the wandering monk. Pointing to a certain line on the palm of his hand, he
would say to his friends: 'I shall certainly become a sannyasin. A palmist has
As Narendra grew into adolescence, his temperament showed a marked change.
He became keen about intellectual matters, read serious books on history and
literature, devoured newspapers, and attended public meetings. Music was his
favourite pastime. He insisted that it should express a lofty idea and arouse the
feelings of the musician.
At the age of fifteen he experienced his first spiritual ecstasy. The family was
journeying to Raipur in the Central Provinces, and part of the trip had to be
made in a bullock cart. On that particular day the air was crisp and clear; the
trees and creepers were covered with green leaves and many-coloured blossoms;
birds of brilliant plumage warbled in the woods. The cart was moving along a
narrow pass where the lofty peaks rising on the two sides almost touched each
other. Narendra's eyes spied a large bee-hive in the cleft of a giant cliff, and
suddenly his mind was filled with awe and reverence for the Divine Providence.
He lost outer consciousness and lay thus in the cart for a long time. Even after
returning to the sense-perceived world he radiated joy.
Another interesting mental phenomenon may be mentioned here; for it was one
often experienced by Narendranath. From boyhood, on first beholding certain
people or places, he would feel that he had known them before; but how long
before he could never remember. One day he and some of his companions were in
a room in a friend's house, where they were discussing various topics. Something
was mentioned, and Narendra felt at once that he had on a previous occasion
talked about the same subject with the selfsame friends in that very house. He
even correctly described every nook and corner of the building, which he had not
seen before. He tried at first to explain this singular phenomenon by the doctrine
of reincarnation, thinking that perhaps he had lived in that house in a previous
life. But he dismissed the idea as improbable. Later he concluded that before his
birth he must have had previsions of the people, places, and events that he was
to experience in his present incarnation; that was why, he thought, he could
recognize them as soon as they presented themselves to him.
At Raipur Narendra was encouraged by his father to meet notable scholars and
discuss with them various intellectual topics usually considered too abstruse for
boys of his age. On such occasions he exhibited great mental power. From his
father, Narendra had learnt the art of grasping the essentials of things, seeing
truth from the widest and most comprehensive standpoints, and holding to the
real issue under discussion.
In 1879 the family returned to Calcutta, and Narendra within a short time
graduated from high school in the first division. In the meantime he had read a
great many standard books of English and Bengali literature. History was his
favourite subject. He also acquired at this time an unusual method of reading a
book and acquiring the knowledge of its subject-matter. To quote his own words:
'I could understand an author without reading every line of his book. I would
read the first and last lines of a paragraph and grasp its meaning. Later I found
that I could understand the subject-matter by reading only the first and last
lines of a page. Afterwards I could follow the whole trend of a writer's argument
by merely reading a few lines, though the author himself tried to explain the
subject in five or more pages.'
Soon the excitement of his boyhood days was over, and in 1879 Narendranath
entered the Presidency College of Calcutta for higher studies. After a year he
joined the General Assembly's Institution, founded by the Scottish General
Missionary Board and later known as the Scottish Church College. It was from
Hastie, the principal of the college and the professor of English literature, that
he first heard the name Sri Ramakrishna.
In college Narendra, now a handsome youth, muscular and agile, though slightly
inclined to stoutness, enjoyed serious studies. During the first two years he
studied Western logic. Thereafter he specialized in Western philosophy and the
ancient and modern history of the different European nations. His memory was
prodigious. It took him only three days to assimilate Green's History of the
English People. Often, on the eve of an examination, he would read the whole
night, keeping awake by drinking strong tea or coffee.
About this time he came in contact with Sri Ramakrishna; this event, as we
shall presently see, was to become the major turning-point of his life. As a result
of his association with Sri Ramakrishna, his innate spiritual yearning was
stirred up, and he began to feel the transitoriness of the world and the futility of
academic education. The day before his B.A. examination, he suddenly felt an
all-consuming love for God and, standing before the room of a college-mate, was
heard to sing with great feeling:
Sing ye, O mountains, O clouds, O great winds!
Sing ye, sing ye, sing His glory!
Sing with joy, all ye suns and moons and stars!
Sing ye, sing ye, His glory!
The friends, surprised, reminded him of the next day's examination, but
Narendra was unconcerned; the shadow of the approaching monastic life was
fast falling on him. He appeared for the examination, however, and easily
About Narendra's scholarship, Professor Hastie once remarked: 'Narendra is a
real genius. I have travelled far and wide, but have not yet come across a lad of
his talents and possibilities even among the philosophical students in the
German universities. He is bound to make his mark in life.'
Narendra's many-sided genius found its expression in music, as well. He studied
both instrumental and vocal music under expert teachers. He could play on
many instruments, but excelled in singing. From a Moslem teacher he learnt
Hindi, Urdu, and Persian songs, most of them of devotional nature.
He also became associated with the Brahmo Samaj, an important religious
movement of the time, which influenced him during this formative period of his
The introduction of English education in India following the British conquest of
the country brought Hindu society in contact with the intellectual and
aggressive European culture. The Hindu youths who came under the spell of the
new, dynamic way of life realized the many shortcomings of their own society.
Under the Moslem rule, even before the coming of the British, the dynamic
aspect of the Hindu culture had been suppressed and the caste-system stratified.
The priests controlled the religious life of the people for their own selfish
interest. Meaningless dogmas and lifeless ceremonies supplanted the
invigorating philosophical teachings of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.
The masses were exploited, moreover, by the landlords, and the lot of women
was especially pitiable. Following the break-down of the Moslem rule, chaos
reigned in every field of Indian life, social, political, religious, and economic. The
newly introduced English education brought into sharp focus the many
drawbacks of society, and various reform movements, both liberal and orthodox,
were initiated to make the national life flow once more through healthy
The Brahmo Samaj, one of these liberal movements, captured the imagination of
the educated youths of Bengal. Raja Rammohan Roy (1774-1833), the founder of
this religious organization, broke away from the rituals, image worship, and
priestcraft of orthodox Hinduism and exhorted his followers to dedicate
themselves to the 'worship and adoration of the Eternal, the Unsearchable, the
Immutable Being, who is the Author and the Preserver of the universe.' The
Raja, endowed with a gigantic intellect, studied the Hindu, Moslem, Christian,
and Buddhist scriptures and was the first Indian to realize the importance of the
Western rational method for solving the diverse problems of Hindu society. He
took a prominent part in the introduction of English education in India, which,
though it at first produced a deleterious effect on the newly awakened Hindu
consciousness, ultimately revealed to a few Indians the glorious heritage of their
own indigenous civilization.
Among the prominent leaders of the Brahmo Samaj who succeeded Rammohan
Roy were Devendranath Tagore (1817-1905), a great devotee of the Upanishads,
and Keshab Chandra Sen (1838-1884), who was inclined to the rituals and
doctrines of Christianity. The Brahmo Samaj, under their leadership, discarded
many of the conventions of Hinduism such as rituals and the worship of God
through images. Primarily a reformist movement, it directed its main energy to
the emancipation of women, the remarriage of Hindu widows, the abolition of
early marriage, and the spread of mass education. Influenced by Western
culture, the Brahmo Samaj upheld the supremacy of reason, preached against
the uncritical acceptance of scriptural authority, and strongly supported the
slogans of the French Revolution. The whole movement was intellectual and
eclectic in character, born of the necessity of the times; unlike traditional
Hinduism, it had no root in the spiritual experiences of saints and seers.
Narendra, like many other contemporary young men, felt the appeal of its
progressive ideas and became one of its members. But, as will be presently seen,
the Brahmo Samaj could not satisfy the deep spiritual yearning of his soul.
About this time Narendra was urged by his father to marry, and an opportunity
soon presented itself. A wealthy man, whose daughter Narendra was asked to
accept as his bride, offered to defray his expenses for higher studies in England
so that he might qualify himself for the much coveted Indian Civil Service.
Narendra refused. Other proposals of similar nature produced no different
result. Apparently it was not his destiny to lead a householder's life.
From boyhood Narendra had shown a passion for purity. Whenever his warm
and youthful nature tempted him to walk into a questionable adventure, he was
held back by an unseen hand. His mother had taught him the value of chastity
and had made him observe it as a matter of honour, in loyalty to herself and the
family tradition. But purity to Narendra was not a negative virtue, a mere
abstention from carnal pleasures. To be pure, he felt, was to conserve an intense
spiritual force that would later manifest itself in all the noble aspirations of life.
He regarded himself as a brahmacharin, a celibate student of the Hindu
tradition, who worked hard, prized ascetic disciplines, held holy things in
reverence, and enjoyed clean words, thoughts, and acts. For according to the
Hindu scriptures, a man, by means of purity, which is the greatest of all virtues,
can experience the subtlest spiritual perceptions. In Naren it accounts for the
great power of concentration, memory, and insight, and for his indomitable
mental energy and physical stamina.
In his youth Narendra used to see every night two visions, utterly dissimilar in
nature, before falling asleep. One was that of a worldly man with an
accomplished wife and children, enjoying wealth, luxuries, fame, and social
position; the other, that of a sannyasin, a wandering monk, bereft of earthly
security and devoted to the contemplation of God. Narendra felt that he had the
power to realize either of these ideals; but when his mind reflected on their
respective virtues, he was inevitably drawn to the life of renunciation. The
glamour of the world would fade and disappear. His deeper self instinctively
chose the austere path.
For a time the congregational prayers and the devotional songs of the Brahmo
Samaj exhilarated Narendra's mind, but soon he found that they did not give
him any real spiritual experience. He wanted to realize God, the goal of religion,
and so felt the imperative need of being instructed by a man who had seen God.
In his eagerness he went to Devendranath, the venerable leader of the Brahmo
Samaj, and asked him, even before the latter had uttered a word, 'Sir, have you
Devendranath was embarrassed and replied: 'My boy, you have the eyes of a
yogi. You should practise meditation.'
The youth was disappointed and felt that this teacher was not the man to help
him in his spiritual struggle. But he received no better answer from the leaders
of other religious sects. Then he remembered having heard the name of
Ramakrishna Paramahamsa from Professor Hastie, who while lecturing his
class on Wordsworth's poem The Excursion, had spoken of trances, remarking
that such religious ecstasies were the result of purity and concentration. He had
said, further, that an exalted experience of this kind was a rare phenomenon,
especially in modern times. 'I have known,' he had said, 'only one person who
has realized that blessed state, and he is Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar. You
will understand trances if you visit the saint.'
Narendra had also heard about Sri Ramakrishna from a relative, Ramchandra
Datta, who was one of the foremost householder disciples of the Master.
Learning of Narendra's unwillingness to marry and ascribing it to his desire to
lead a spiritual life, Ramchandra had said to him, 'If you really want to cultivate
spirituality, then visit Ramakrishna at Dakshineswar.'
Narendra met Ramakrishna for the first time in November 1881 at the house of
the Master's devotee Surendranath Mitra, the young man having been invited
there to entertain the visitors with his melodious music. The Paramahamsa was
much impressed by his sincerity and devotion, and after a few inquiries asked
him to visit him at Dakshineswar. Narendra accepted. He wished to learn if
Ramakrishna was the man to help him in his spiritual quest.
AT THE FEET OF RAMAKRISHNA
Ramakrishna, the God-man of modern times, was born on February 18, 1836, in
the little village of Kamarpukur, in the district of Hooghly in Bengal. How
different were his upbringing and the environment of his boyhood from those of
Narendranath, who was to become, later, the bearer and interpreter of his
message! Ramakrishna's parents, belonging to the brahmin caste, were poor,
pious, and devoted to the traditions of their ancient religion. Full of fun and
innocent joys, the fair child, with flowing hair and a sweet, musical voice, grew
up in a simple countryside of rice-fields, cows, and banyan and mango trees. He
was apathetic about his studies and remained practically illiterate all his life,
but his innate spiritual tendencies found expression through devotional songs
and the company of wandering monks, who fired his boyish imagination by the
stories of their spiritual adventures. At the age of six he experienced a spiritual
ecstasy while watching a flight of snow-white cranes against a black sky
overcast with rain-clouds. He began to go into trances as he meditated on gods
and goddesses. His father's death, which left the family in straitened
circumstances, deepened his spiritual mood. And so, though at the age of sixteen
he joined his brother in Calcutta, he refused to go on there with his studies; for,
as he remarked, he was simply not interested in an education whose sole
purpose was to earn mere bread and butter. He felt a deep longing for the
realization of God.
The floodgate of Ramakrishna's emotion burst all bounds when he took up the
duties of a priest in the Kali temple of Dakshineswar, where the Deity was
worshipped as the Divine Mother. Ignorant of the scriptures and of the
intricacies of ritual, Ramakrishna poured his whole soul into prayer, which often
took the form of devotional songs. Food, sleep, and other physical needs were
completely forgotten in an all-consuming passion for the vision of God. His
nights were spent in contemplation in the neighbouring woods. Doubt sometimes
alternated with hope; but an inner certainty and the testimony of the illumined
saints sustained him in his darkest hours of despair. Formal worship or the
mere sight of the image did not satisfy his inquiring mind; for he felt that a
figure of stone could not be the bestower of peace and immortality. Behind the
image there must be the real Spirit, which he was determined to behold. This
was not an easy task. For a long time the Spirit played with him a teasing game
of hide-and-seek, but at last it yielded to the demand of love on the part of the
young devotee. When he felt the direct presence of the Divine Mother,
Ramakrishna dropped unconscious to the floor, experiencing within himself a
constant flow of bliss.
This foretaste of what was to follow made him God-intoxicated, and whetted his
appetite for further experience. He wished to see God uninterruptedly, with eyes
open as well as closed. He therefore abandoned himself recklessly to the practice
of various extreme spiritual disciplines. To remove from his mind the least trace
of the arrogance of his high brahmin caste, he used to clean stealthily the latrine
at a pariah's house. Through a stern process of discrimination he effaced all
sense of distinction between gold and clay. Purity became the very breath of his
nostrils, and he could not regard a woman, even in a dream, in any other way
except as his own mother or the Mother of the universe. For years his eyelids did
not touch each other in sleep. And he was finally thought to be insane.
Indeed, the stress of his spiritual practice soon told upon Ramakrishna's delicate
body and he returned to Kamarpukur to recover his health. His relatives and old
friends saw a marked change in his nature; for the gay boy had been
transformed into a contemplative young man whose vision was directed to
something on a distant horizon. His mother proposed marriage, and finding in
this the will of the Divine Mother, Ramakrishna consented. He even indicated
where the girl was to be found, namely, in the village of Jayrambati, only three
miles away. Here lived the little Saradamani, a girl of five, who was in many
respects very different from the other girls of her age. The child would pray to
God to make her character as fragrant as the tuberose. Later, at Dakshineswar,
she prayed to God to make her purer than the full moon, which, pure as it was,
showed a few dark spots. The marriage was celebrated and Ramakrishna,
participating, regarded the whole affair as fun or a new excitement.
In a short while he came back to Dakshineswar and plunged again into the
stormy life of religious experimentation. His mother, his newly married wife, and
his relatives were forgotten. Now, however, his spiritual disciplines took a new
course. He wanted to follow the time-honoured paths of the Hindu religion under
the guidance of competent teachers, and they came to him one by one, nobody
knew from where. One was a woman, under whom he practised the disciplines of
Tantra and of the Vaishnava faith and achieved the highest result in an
incredibly short time. It was she who diagnosed his physical malady as the
manifestation of deep spiritual emotions and described his apparent insanity as
the result of an agonizing love for God; he was immediately relieved. It was she,
moreover, who first declared him to be an Incarnation of God, and she proved
her statement before an assembly of theologians by scriptural evidence. Under
another teacher, the monk Jatadhari, Ramakrishna delved into the mysteries of
Rama worship and experienced Rama's visible presence. Further, he communed
with God through the divine relationships of Father, Mother, Friend, and
Beloved. By an austere sannyasin named Totapuri, he was initiated into the
monastic life, and in three days he realized his complete oneness with Brahman,
the undifferentiated Absolute, which is the culmination of man's spiritual
endeavour. Totapuri himself had had to struggle for forty years to realize this
Ramakrishna turned next to Christianity and Islam, to practise their respective
disciplines, and he attained the same result that he had attained through
Hinduism. He was thereby convinced that these, too, were ways to the
realization of God-consciousness. Finally, he worshipped his own wife — who in
the meantime had grown into a young woman of nineteen — as the
manifestation of the Divine Mother of the universe and surrendered at her feet
the fruit of his past spiritual practices. After this he left behind all his
disciplines and struggles. For according to Hindu tradition, when the normal
relationship between husband and wife, which is the strongest foundation of the
worldly life, has been transcended and a man sees in his wife the divine
presence, he then sees God everywhere in the universe. This is the culmination
of the spiritual life.
Ramakrishna himself was now convinced of his divine mission on earth and
came to know that through him the Divine Mother would found a new religious
order comprising those who would accept the doctrine of the Universal Religion
which he had experienced. It was further revealed to him that anyone who had
prayed to God sincerely, even once, as well as those who were passing through
their final birth on earth, would accept him as their spiritual ideal and mould
their lives according to his universal teaching.
The people around him were bewildered to see this transformation of a man
whom they had ridiculed only a short while ago as insane. The young priest had
become God's devotee; the devotee, an ascetic; the ascetic, a saint; the saint, a
man of realization; and the man of realization, a new Prophet. Like the full-
blown blossom attracting bees, Ramakrishna drew to him men and women of
differing faith, intelligence, and social position. He gave generously to all from
the inexhaustible store house of divine wisdom, and everyone felt uplifted in his
presence. But the Master himself was not completely satisfied. He longed for
young souls yet untouched by the world, who would renounce everything for the
realization of God and the service of humanity. He was literally consumed with
this longing. The talk of worldly people was tasteless to him. He often compared
such people to mixture of milk and water with the latter preponderating, and
said that he had become weary of trying to prepare thick milk from the mixture.
Evenings, when his anguish reached its limit, he would climb the roof of a
building near the temple and cry at the top of his voice: 'Come, my boys! Oh,
where are you all? I cannot bear to live without you!' A mother could not feel
more intensely for her beloved children, a friend for his dearest friend, or a lover
for her sweetheart.
Shortly thereafter the young men destined to be his monastic disciples began to
arrive. And foremost among them was Narendranath.
The first meeting at Dakshineswar between the Master and Narendra was
momentous. Sri Ramakrishna recognized instantaneously his future messenger.
Narendra, careless about his clothes and general appearance, was so unlike the
other young men who had accompanied him to the temple. His eyes were
impressive, partly indrawn, indicating a meditative mood. He sang a few songs,
and as usual poured into them his whole soul.
His first song was this:
Let us go back once more,
O mind, to our proper home!
Here in this foreign land of earth Why should we wander aimlessly in
These living beings round about,
And the five elements,
Are strangers to you, all of them; none are your own.
Why do you so forget yourself,
In love with strangers, foolish mind?
Why do you so forget your own?
Mount the path of truth,
O mind! Unflaggingly climb,
With love as the lamp to light your way.
As your provision on the journey, take with you
The virtues, hidden carefully;
For, like two highwaymen,
Greed and delusion wait to rob you of your wealth.
And keep beside you constantly,
As guards to shelter you from harm,
Calmness of mind and self-control.
Companionship with holy men will be for you
A welcome rest-house by the road;
There rest your weary limbs awhile, asking your way,
If ever you should be in doubt,
Of him who watches there.
If anything along the path should cause you fear,
Then loudly shout the name of God;
For He is ruler of that road,
And even Death must bow to Him.
When the singing was over, Sri Ramakrishna suddenly grasped Narendra's hand
and took him into the northern porch. To Narendra's utter amazement, the
Master said with tears streaming down his cheeks: 'Ah! you have come so late.
How unkind of you to keep me waiting so long!
My ears are almost seared listening to the cheap talk of worldly people. Oh, how
I have been yearning to unburden my mind to one who will understand my
thought!' Then with folded hands he said: 'Lord! I know you are the ancient sage
Nara — the Incarnation of Narayana — born on earth to remove the miseries of
mankind.' The rationalist Naren regarded these words as the meaningless
jargon of an insane person. He was further dismayed when Sri Ramakrishna
presently brought from his room some sweets and fed him with his own hands.
But the Master nevertheless extracted from him a promise to visit
They returned to the room and Naren asked the Master, 'Sir, have you seen
God?' Without a moment's hesitation the reply was given: 'Yes, I have seen God.
I see Him as I see you here, only more clearly. God can be seen. One can talk to
him. But who cares for God? People shed torrents of tears for their wives,
children, wealth, and property, but who weeps for the vision of God? If one cries
sincerely for God, one can surely see Him.'
Narendra was astounded. For the first time, he was face to face with a man who
asserted that he had seen God. For the first time, in fact, he was hearing that
God could be seen. He could feel that Ramakrishna's words were uttered from
the depths of an inner experience. They could not be doubted. Still he could not
reconcile these words with Ramakrishna's strange conduct, which he had
witnessed only a few minutes before. What puzzled Narendra further was
Ramakrishna's normal behaviour in the presence of others. The young man
returned to Calcutta bewildered, but yet with a feeling of inner peace.
During his second visit to the Master, Narendra had an even stranger
experience. After a minute or two Sri Ramakrishna drew near him in an ecstatic
mood, muttered some words, fixed his eyes on him, and placed his right foot on
Naren's body. At this touch Naren saw, with eyes open, the walls, the room, the
temple garden — nay, the whole world — vanishing, and even himself
disappearing into a void. He felt sure that he was facing death. He cried in
consternation: 'What are you doing to me? I have my parents, brothers, and
sisters at home.'
The Master laughed and stroked Naren's chest, restoring him to his normal
mood. He said, 'All right, everything will happen in due time.'
Narendra, completely puzzled, felt that Ramakrishna had cast a hypnotic spell
upon him. But how could that have been? Did he not pride himself in the
possession of an iron will? He felt disgusted that he should have been unable to
resist the influence of a madman. Nonetheless he felt a great inner attraction for
On his third visit Naren fared no better, though he tried his utmost to be on
guard. Sri Ramakrishna took him to a neighbouring garden and, in a state of
trance, touched him. Completely overwhelmed, Naren lost consciousness.
Sri Ramakrishna, referring later to this incident, said that after putting Naren
into a state of unconsciousness, he had asked him many questions about his
past, his mission in the world, and the duration of his present life. The answer
had only confirmed what he himself had thought about these matters.
Ramakrishna told his other disciples that Naren had attained perfection even
before this birth; that he was an adept in meditation; and that the day Naren
recognized his true self, he would give up the body by an act of will, through
yoga. Often he was heard to say that Naren was one of the Saptarshis, or Seven
Sages, who live in the realm of the Absolute. He narrated to them a vision he
had had regarding the disciple's spiritual heritage.
Absorbed, one day, in samadhi, Ramakrishna had found that his mind was
soaring high, going beyond the physical universe of the sun, moon, and stars,
and passing into the subtle region of ideas. As it continued to ascend, the forms
of gods and goddesses were left behind, and it crossed the luminous barrier
separating the phenomenal universe from the Absolute, entering finally the
transcendental realm. There Ramakrishna saw seven venerable sages absorbed
in meditation. These, he thought, must have surpassed even the gods and
goddesses in wisdom and holiness, and as he was admiring their unique
spirituality he saw a portion of the undifferentiated Absolute become congealed,
as it were, and take the form of a Divine Child. Gently clasping the neck of one
of the sages with His soft arms, the Child whispered something in his ear, and at
this magic touch the sage awoke from meditation. He fixed his half-open eyes
upon the wondrous Child, who said in great joy: 'I am going down to earth. Won't
you come with me?' With a benign look the sage expressed assent and returned
into deep spiritual ecstasy. Ramakrishna was amazed to observe that a tiny
portion of the sage, however, descended to earth, taking the form of light, which
struck the house in Calcutta where Narendra's family lived, and when he saw
Narendra for the first time, he at once recognized him as the incarnation of the
sage. He also admitted that the Divine Child who brought about the descent of
the rishi was none other than himself.
The meeting of Narendra and Sri Ramakrishna was an important event in the
lives of both. A storm had been raging in Narendra's soul when he came to Sri
Ramakrishna, who himself had passed through a similar struggle but was now
firmly anchored in peace as a result of his intimate communion with the
Godhead and his realization of Brahman as the immutable essence of all things.
A genuine product of the Indian soil and thoroughly acquainted with the
spiritual traditions of India, Sri Ramakrishna was ignorant of the modern way of
thinking. But Narendra was the symbol of the modern spirit. Inquisitive, alert,
and intellectually honest, he possessed an open mind and demanded rational
proof before accepting any conclusion as valid. As a loyal member of the Brahmo
Samaj he was critical of image worship and the rituals of the Hindu religion. He
did not feel the need of a guru, a human intermediary between God and man. He
was even sceptical about the existence of such a person, who was said to be free
from human limitations and to whom an aspirant was expected to surrender
himself completely and offer worship as to God. Ramakrishna's visions of gods
and goddesses he openly ridiculed, and called them hallucinations.
For five years Narendra closely watched the Master, never allowing himself to
be influenced by blind faith, always testing the words and actions of Sri
Ramakrishna in the crucible of reason. It cost him many sorrows and much
anguish before he accepted Sri Ramakrishna as the guru and the ideal of the
spiritual life. But when the acceptance came, it was wholehearted, final, and
irrevocable. The Master, too, was overjoyed to find a disciple who doubted, and
he knew that Naren was the one to carry his message to the world.
The inner process that gradually transformed the chrysalis of Narendra into a
beautiful butterfly will for ever remain, like all deep spiritual mysteries,
unknown to the outer world. People, however, noticed the growth of an intimate
relationship between the loving, patient, and forgiving teacher and his imperious
and stubborn disciple. The Master never once asked Naren to abandon reason.
He met the challenge of Naren's intellect with his superior understanding,
acquired through firsthand knowledge of the essence of things. When Naren's
reasoning failed to solve the ultimate mystery, the teacher gave him the
necessary insight. Thus, with infinite patience, love, and vigilance, he tamed the
rebellious spirit, demanding complete obedience to moral and spiritual
disciplines, without which the religious life can not be built on a firm foundation.
The very presence of Narendranath would fill the Master's mind with
indescribable joy and create ecstatic moods. He had already known, by many
indications, of the disciple's future greatness, the manifestation of which awaited
only the fullness of time, What others regarded in Naren as stubbornness or
haughtiness appeared to Sri Ramakrishna as the expression of his manliness
and self-reliance, born of his self-control and innate purity. He could not bear the
slightest criticism of Naren and often said: 'Let no one judge him hastily. People
will never understand him fully.'
Ramakrishna loved Narendranath because he saw him as the embodiment of
Narayana, the Divine Spirit, undefiled by the foul breath of the world. But he
was criticized for his attachment. Once a trouble-maker of twisted mind named
Hazra, who lived with the Master at Dakshineswar, said to him, 'If you long for
Naren and the other youngsters all the time, when will you think of God?' The
Master was distressed by this thought. But it was at once revealed to him that
though God dwelt in all beings, He was especially manifest in a pure soul like
Naren. Relieved of his worries, he then said: 'Oh, what a fool Hazra is! How he
unsettled my mind! But why blame the poor fellow? How could he know?'
Sri Ramakrishna was outspoken in Narendra's praise. This often embarrassed
the young disciple, who would criticize the Master for what he termed a sort of
infatuation. One day Ramakrishna spoke highly of Keshab Sen and the saintly
Vijay Goswami, the two outstanding leaders of the Brahmo Samaj. Then he
added: 'If Keshab possesses one virtue which has made him world-famous,
Naren is endowed with eighteen such virtues. I have seen in Keshab and Vijay
the divine light burning like a candle flame, but in Naren it shines with the
radiance of the sun.'
Narendra, instead of feeling flattered by these compliments, became annoyed
and sharply rebuked the Master for what he regarded as his foolhardiness. 'I
cannot help it,' the Master protested. 'Do you think these are my words? The
Divine Mother showed me certain things about you, which I repeated. And She
reveals to me nothing but the truth.'
But Naren was hardly convinced. He was sure that these so-called revelations
were pure illusions. He carefully explained to Sri Ramakrishna that, from the
viewpoint of Western science and philosophy, very often a man was deceived by
his mind, and that the chances of deception were greater when a personal
attachment was involved. He said to the Master, 'Since you love me and wish to
see me great, these fancies naturally come to your mind.'
The Master was perplexed. He prayed to the Divine Mother for light and was
told: 'Why do you care about what he says? In a short time he will accept your
every word as true.'
On another occasion, when the Master was similarly reprimanded by the
disciple, he was reassured by the Divine Mother. Thereupon he said to Naren
with a smile: 'You are a rogue. I won't listen to you any more. Mother says that I
love you because I see the Lord in you. The day I shall not see Him in you, I shall
not be able to bear even the sight of you.'
On account of his preoccupation with his studies, or for other reasons, Narendra
could not come to Dakshineswar as often as Sri Ramakrishna wished. But the
Master could hardly endure his prolonged absence. If the disciple had not visited
him for a number of days, he would send someone to Calcutta to fetch him.
Sometimes he went to Calcutta himself. One time, for example, Narendra
remained away from Dakshineswar for several weeks; even the Master's eager
importunities failed to bring him. Sri Ramakrishna knew that he sang regularly
at the prayer meetings of the Brahmo Samaj, and so one day he made his way to
the Brahmo temple that the disciple attended. Narendra was singing in the choir
as the Master entered the hall, and when he heard Narendra's voice, Sri
Ramakrishna fell into a deep ecstasy. The eyes of the congregation turned to
him, and soon a commotion followed. Narendra hurried to his side. One of the
Brahmo leaders, in order to stop the excitement, put out the lights. The young
disciple, realizing that the Master's sudden appearance was the cause of the
disturbance, sharply took him to task. The latter answered, with tears in his
eyes, that he had simply not been able to keep himself away from Narendra.
On another occasion, Sri Ramakrishna, unable to bear Narendra's absence, went
to Calcutta to visit the disciple at his own home. He was told that Naren was
studying in an attic in the second floor that could be reached only by a steep
staircase. His nephew Ramlal, who was a sort of caretaker of the Master, had
accompanied him, and with his help Sri Ramakrishna climbed a few steps.
Narendra appeared at the head of the stair, and at the very sight of him Sri
Ramakrishna exclaimed, 'Naren, my beloved!' and went into ecstasy. With
considerable difficulty Naren and Ramlal helped him to finish climbing the
steps, and as he entered the room the Master fell into deep samadhi. A fellow
student who was with Naren at the time and did not know anything of religious
trances, asked Naren in bewilderment, 'Who is this man?'
'Never mind,' replied Naren. 'You had better go home now.'
Naren often said that the 'Old Man,' meaning Ramakrishna, bound the disciple
for ever to him by his love. 'What do worldly men,' he remarked, 'know about
love? They only make a show of it. The Master alone loves us genuinely.' Naren,
in return, bore a deep love for Sri Ramakrishna, though he seldom expressed it
in words. He took delight in criticizing the Master's spiritual experiences as
evidences of a lack of self-control. He made fun of his worship of Kali.
'Why do you come here,' Sri Ramakrishna once asked him, 'if you do not accept
Kali, my Mother?'
'Bah! Must I accept Her,' Naren retorted, 'simply because I come to see you? I
come to you because I love you.'
'All right,' said the Master, 'ere long you will not only accept my blessed Mother,
but weep in Her name.'
Turning to his other disciples, he said: 'This boy has no faith in the forms of God
and tells me that my visions are pure imagination. But he is a fine lad of pure
mind. He does not accept anything without direct evidence. He has studied much
and cultivated great discrimination. He has fine judgement.'
TRAINING OF THE DISCIPLE
It is hard to say when Naren actually accepted Sri Ramakrishna as his guru. As
far as the master was concerned, the spiritual relationship was established at
the first meeting at Dakshineswar, when he had touched Naren, stirring him to
his inner depths. From that moment he had implicit faith in the disciple and
bore him a great love. But he encouraged Naren in the independence of his
thinking. The love and faith of the Master acted as a restraint upon the
impetuous youth and became his strong shield against the temptations of the
world. By gradual steps the disciple was then led from doubt to certainty, and
from anguish of mind to the bliss of the Spirit. This, however, was not an easy
Sri Ramakrishna, perfect teacher that he was, never laid down identical
disciplines for disciples of diverse temperaments. He did not insist that
Narendra should follow strict rules about food, nor did he ask him to believe in
the reality of the gods and goddesses of Hindu mythology. It was not necessary
for Narendra's philosophic mind to pursue the disciplines of concrete worship.
But a strict eye was kept on Naren's practice of discrimination, detachment, self-
control, and regular meditation. Sri Ramakrishna enjoyed Naren's vehement
arguments with the other devotees regarding the dogmas and creeds of religion
and was delighted to hear him tear to shreds their unquestioning beliefs. But
when, as often happened, Naren teased the gentle Rakhal for showing reverence
to the Divine Mother Kali, the Master would not tolerate these attempts to
unsettle the brother disciple's faith in the forms of God.
As a member of the Brahmo Samaj, Narendra accepted its doctrine of
monotheism and the Personal God. He also believed in the natural depravity of
man. Such doctrines of non-dualistic Vedanta as the divinity of the soul and the
oneness of existence he regarded as blasphemy; the view that man is one with
God appeared to him pure nonsense. When the master warned him against thus
limiting God's infinitude and asked him to pray to God to reveal to him His true
nature, Narendra smiled. One day he was making fun of Sri Ramakrishna's non-
dualism before a friend and said, 'What can be more absurd than to say that this
jug is God, this cup is God, and that we too are God?' Both roared with laughter.
Just then the Master appeared. Coming to learn the cause of their fun, he gently
touched Naren and plunged into deep samadhi. The touch produced a magic
effect, and Narendra entered a new realm of consciousness. He saw the whole
universe permeated by the Divine Spirit and returned home in a daze. While
eating his meal, he felt the presence of Brahman in everything — in the food,
and in himself too. While walking in the street, he saw the carriages, the horses,
the crowd, and himself as if made of the same substance. After a few days the
intensity of the vision lessened to some extent, but still he could see the world
only as a dream. While strolling in a public park of Calcutta, he struck his head
against the iron railing, several times, to see if they were real or a mere illusion
of the mind. Thus he got a glimpse of non-dualism, the fullest realization of
which was to come only later, at the Cossipore garden.
Sri Ramakrishna was always pleased when his disciples put to the test his
statements or behaviour before accepting his teachings. He would say: 'Test me
as the money-changers test their coins. You must not believe me without testing
me thoroughly.' The disciples often heard him say that his nervous system had
undergone a complete change as a result of his spiritual experiences, and that he
could not bear the touch of any metal, such as gold or silver. One day, during his
absence in Calcutta, Narendra hid a coin under Ramakrishna's bed. After his
return when the Master sat on the bed, he started up in pain as if stung by an
insect. The mattress was examined and the hidden coin was found.
Naren, on the other hand, was often tested by the Master. One day, when he
entered the Master's room, he was completely ignored. Not a word of greeting
was uttered. A week later he came back and met with the same indifference, and
during the third and fourth visits saw no evidence of any thawing of the Master's
At the end of a month Sri Ramakrishna said to Naren, 'I have not exchanged a
single word with you all this time, and still you come.'
The disciple replied: 'I come to Dakshineswar because I love you and want to see
you. I do not come here to hear your words.'
The Master was overjoyed. Embracing the disciple, he said: 'I was only testing
you. I wanted to see if you would stay away on account of my outward
indifference. Only a man of your inner strength could put up with such
indifference on my part. Anyone else would have left me long ago.'
On one occasion Sri Ramakrishna proposed to transfer to Narendranath many of
the spiritual powers that he had acquired as a result of his ascetic disciplines
and visions of God. Naren had no doubt concerning the Master's possessing such
powers. He asked if they would help him to realize God. Sri Ramakrishna
replied in the negative but added that they might assist him in his future work
as a spiritual teacher. 'Let me realize God first,' said Naren, 'and then I shall
perhaps know whether or not I want supernatural powers. If I accept them now,
I may forget God, make selfish use of them, and thus come to grief.' Sri
Ramakrishna was highly pleased to see his chief disciple's single-minded
Several factors were at work to mould the personality of young Narendranath.
Foremost of these were his inborn spiritual tendencies, which were beginning to
show themselves under the influence of Sri Ramakrishna, but against which his
rational mind put up a strenuous fight. Second was his habit of thinking highly
and acting nobly, disciplines acquired from a mother steeped in the spiritual
heritage of India. Third were his broadmindedness and regard for truth
wherever found, and his sceptical attitude towards the religious beliefs and
social conventions of the Hindu society of his time. These he had learnt from his
English-educated father, and he was strengthened in them through his own
contact with Western culture.
With the introduction in India of English education during the middle of the
nineteenth century, as we have seen, Western science, history, and philosophy
were studied in the Indian colleges and universities. The educated Hindu
youths, allured by the glamour, began to mould their thought according to this
new light, and Narendra could not escape the influence. He developed a great
respect for the analytical scientific method and subjected many of the Master's
spiritual visions to such scrutiny. The English poets stirred his feelings,
especially Wordsworth and Shelley, and he took a course in Western medicine to
understand the functioning of the nervous system, particularly the brain and
spinal cord, in order to find out the secrets of Sri Ramakrishna's trances. But all
this only deepened his inner turmoil.
John Stuart Mill's Three Essays on Religion upset his boyish theism and the
easy optimism imbibed from the Brahmo Samaj. The presence of evil in nature
and man haunted him and he could not reconcile it at all with the goodness of an
omnipotent Creator. Hume's scepticism and Herbert Spencer's doctrine of the
Unknowable filled his mind with a settled philosophical agnosticism. After the
wearing out of his first emotional freshness and naivete, he was beset with a
certain dryness and incapacity for the old prayers and devotions. He was filled
with an ennui which he concealed, however, under his jovial nature. Music, at
this difficult stage of his life, rendered him great help; for it moved him as
nothing else and gave him a glimpse of unseen realities that often brought tears
to his eyes.
Narendra did not have much patience with humdrum reading, nor did he care to
absorb knowledge from books as much as from living communion and personal
experience. He wanted life to be kindled by life, and thought kindled by thought.
He studied Shelley under a college friend, Brajendranath Seal, who later became
the leading Indian philosopher of his time, and deeply felt with the poet his
pantheism, impersonal love, and vision of a glorified millennial humanity. The
universe, no longer a mere lifeless, loveless mechanism, was seen to contain a
spiritual principle of unity. Brajendranath, moreover, tried to present him with a
synthesis of the Supreme Brahman of Vedanta, the Universal Reason of Hegel,
and the gospel of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity of the French Revolution. By
accepting as the principle of morals the sovereignty of the Universal Reason and
the negation of the individual, Narendra achieved an intellectual victory over
scepticism and materialism, but no peace of mind.
Narendra now had to face a new difficulty. The 'ballet of bloodless categories' of
Hegel and his creed of Universal Reason required of Naren a suppression of the
yearning and susceptibility of his artistic nature and joyous temperament, the
destruction of the cravings of his keen and acute senses, and the smothering of
his free and merry conviviality. This amounted almost to killing his own true
self. Further, he could not find in such a philosophy any help in the struggle of a
hot-blooded youth against the cravings of the passions, which appeared to him as
impure, gross, and carnal. Some of his musical associates were men of loose
morals for whom he felt a bitter and undisguised contempt.
Narendra therefore asked his friend Brajendra if the latter knew the way of
deliverance from the bondage of the senses, but he was told only to rely upon
Pure Reason and to identify the self with it, and was promised that through this
he would experience an ineffable peace. The friend was a Platonic
transcendentalist and did not have faith in what he called the artificial prop of
grace, or the mediation of a guru. But the problems and difficulties of Narendra
were very different from those of his intellectual friend. He found that mere
philosophy was impotent in the hour of temptation and in the struggle for his
soul's deliverance. He felt the need of a hand to save, to uplift, to protect —
shakti or power outside his rational mind that would transform his impotence
into strength and glory. He wanted a flesh-and-blood reality established in peace
and certainty, in short, a living guru, who, by embodying perfection in the flesh,
would compose the commotion of his soul.
The leaders of the Brahmo Samaj, as well as those of the other religious sects,
had failed. It was only Ramakrishna who spoke to him with authority, as none
had spoken before, and by his power brought peace into the troubled soul and
healed the wounds of the spirit. At first Naren feared that the serenity that
possessed him in the presence of the Master was illusory, but his misgivings
were gradually vanquished by the calm assurance transmitted to him by
Ramakrishna out of his own experience of Satchidananda Brahman —
Existence, Knowledge, and Bliss Absolute. (This account of the struggle of Naren's
collegiate days summarizes an article on Swami Vivekananda by Brajendranath Seal, published
in the Life of Swami Vivekananda by the Advaita Ashrama, Mayavati, India.)
Narendra could not but recognize the contrast of the Sturm und Drang of his
soul with the serene bliss in which Sri Ramakrishna was always bathed. He
begged the Master to teach him meditation, and Sri Ramakrishna's reply was to
him a source of comfort and strength. The Master said: 'God listens to our
sincere prayer. I can swear that you can see God and talk with Him as intensely
as you see me and talk with me. You can hear His words and feel His touch.'
Further the Master declared: 'You may not believe in divine forms, but if you
believe in an Ultimate Reality who is the Regulator of the universe, you can pray
to Him thus: "O God, I do not know Thee. Be gracious to reveal to me Thy real
nature." He will certainly listen to you if your prayer is sincere.'
Narendra, intensifying his meditation under the Master's guidance, began to
lose consciousness of the body and to feel an inner peace, and this peace would
linger even after the meditation was over. Frequently he felt the separation of
the body from the soul. Strange perceptions came to him in dreams, producing a
sense of exaltation that persisted after he awoke. The guru was performing his
task in an inscrutable manner, Narendra's friends observed only his outer
struggle; but the real transformation was known to the teacher alone — or
perhaps to the disciple too.
In 1884, when Narendranath was preparing for the B.A. examination, his family
was struck by a calamity. His father suddenly died, and the mother and children
were plunged into great grief. For Viswanath, a man of generous nature, had
lived beyond his means, and his death burdened the family with a heavy debt.
Creditors, like hungry wolves, began to prowl about the door, and to make
matters worse, certain relatives brought a lawsuit for the partition of the
ancestral home. Though they lost it, Narendra was faced, thereafter, with
poverty. As the eldest male member of the family, he had to find the
wherewithal for the feeding of seven or eight mouths and began to hunt a job. He
also attended the law classes. He went about clad in coarse clothes, barefoot, and
hungry. Often he refused invitations for dinner from friends, remembering his
starving mother, brothers, and sisters at home. He would skip family meals on
the fictitious plea that he had already eaten at a friend's house, so that the
people at home might receive a larger share of the scanty food. The Datta family
was proud and would not dream of soliciting help from outsiders. With his
companions Narendra was his usual gay self. His rich friends no doubt noticed
his pale face, but they did nothing to help. Only one friend sent occasional
anonymous aid, and Narendra remained grateful to him for life. Meanwhile, all
his efforts to find employment failed. Some friends who earned money in a
dishonest way asked him to join them, and a rich woman sent him an immoral
proposal, promising to put an end to his financial distress. But Narendra gave to
these a blunt rebuff. Sometimes he would wonder if the world were not the
handiwork of the Devil — for how could one account for so much suffering in
One day, after a futile search for a job, he sat down, weary and footsore, in the
big park of Calcutta in the shadow of the Ochterlony monument. There some
friends joined him and one of them sang a song, perhaps to console him,
describing God's abundant grace.
Bitterly Naren said: 'Will you please stop that song? Such fancies are, no doubt,
pleasing to those who are born with silver spoons in their mouths. Yes, there
was a time when I, too, thought like that. But today these ideas appear to me a
The friends were bewildered.
One morning, as usual, Naren left his bed repeating God's name, and was about
to go out in search of work after seeking divine blessings. His mother heard the
prayer and said bitterly: 'Hush, you fool! You have been crying yourself hoarse
for God since your childhood. Tell me what has God done for you?' Evidently the
crushing poverty at home was too much for the pious mother.
These words stung Naren to the quick. A doubt crept into his mind about God's
existence and His Providence.
It was not in Naren's nature to hide his feelings. He argued before his friends
and the devotees of Sri Ramakrishna about God's non-existence and the futility
of prayer even if God existed. His over-zealous friends thought he had become an
atheist and ascribed to him many unmentionable crimes, which he had
supposedly committed to forget his misery. Some of the devotees of the Master
shared these views. Narendra was angry and mortified to think that they could
believe him to have sunk so low. He became hardened and justified drinking and
the other dubious pleasures resorted to by miserable people for a respite from
their suffering. He said, further, that he himself would not hesitate to follow
such a course if he were assured of its efficacy. Openly asserting that only
cowards believed in God for fear of hell-fire, he argued the possibility of God's
non-existence and quoted Western philosophers in support of his position. And
when the devotees of the Master became convinced that he was hopelessly lost,
he felt a sort of inner satisfaction.
A garbled report of the matter reached Sri Ramakrishna, and Narendra thought
that perhaps the Master, too, doubted his moral integrity. The very idea revived
his anger. 'Never mind,' he said to himself. 'If good or bad opinion of a man rests
on such flimsy grounds, I don't care.'
But Narendra was mistaken. For one day Bhavanath, a devotee of the master
and an intimate friend of Narendra, cast aspersions on the latter's character,
and the Master said angrily: 'Stop, you fool! The Mother has told me that it is
simply not true. I shan't look at your face if you speak to me again that way.'
The fact was that Narendra could not, in his heart of hearts, disbelieve in God.
He remembered the spiritual visions of his own boyhood and many others that
he had experienced in the company of the Master. Inwardly he longed to
understand God and His ways. And one day he gained this understanding. It
happened in the following way:
He had been out since morning in a soaking rain in search of employment,
having had neither food nor rest for the whole day. That evening he sat down on
the porch of a house by the roadside, exhausted. He was in a daze. Thoughts
began to flit before his mind, which he could not control. Suddenly he had a
strange vision, which lasted almost the whole night. He felt that veil after veil
was removed from before his soul, and he understood the reconciliation of God's
justice with His mercy. He came to know — but he never told how — that misery
could exist in the creation of a compassionate God without impairing His
sovereign power or touching man's real self. He understood the meaning of it all
and was at peace. Just before daybreak, refreshed both in body and in mind, he
This revelation profoundly impressed Narendranath. He became indifferent to
people's opinion and was convinced that he was not born to lead an ordinary
worldly life, enjoying the love of a wife and children and physical luxuries. He
recalled how the several proposals of marriage made by his relatives had come to
nothing, and he ascribed all this to God's will. The peace and freedom of the
monastic life cast a spell upon him. He determined to renounce the world, and
set a date for this act. Then, coming to learn that Sri Ramakrishna would visit
Calcutta that very day, he was happy to think that he could embrace the life of a
wandering monk with his guru's blessings.
When they met, the Master persuaded his disciple to accompany him to
Dakshineswar. As they arrived in his room, Sri Ramakrishna went into an
ecstatic mood and sang a song, while tears bathed his eyes. The words of the
song clearly indicated that the Master knew of the disciple's secret wish. When
other devotees asked him about the cause of his grief, Sri Ramakrishna said,
'Oh, never mind, it is something between me and Naren, and nobody else's
business.' At night he called Naren to his side and said with great feeling: 'I
know you are born for Mother's work. I also know that you will be a monk. But
stay in the world as long as I live, for my sake at least.' He wept again.
Soon after, Naren procured a temporary job, which was sufficient to provide a
hand-to-mouth living for the family.
One day Narendra asked himself why, since Kali, the Divine Mother listened to
Sri Ramakrishna prayers, should not the Master pray to Her to relieve his
poverty. When he told Sri Ramakrishna about this idea, the latter inquired why
he did not pray himself to Kali, adding that Narendranath suffered because he
did not acknowledge Kali as the Sovereign Mistress of the universe.
'Today,' the Master continued, 'is a Tuesday, an auspicious day for the Mother's
worship. Go to Her shrine in the evening, prostrate yourself before the image,
and pray to Her for any boon; it will be granted. Mother Kali is the embodiment
of Love and Compassion. She is the Power of Brahman. She gives birth to the
world by Her mere wish. She fulfils every sincere prayer of Her devotees.'
At nine o'clock in the evening, Narendranath went to the Kali temple. Passing
through the courtyard, he felt within himself a surge of emotion, and his heart
leapt with joy in anticipation of the vision of the Divine Mother. Entering the
temple, he cast his eyes upon the image and found the stone figure to be nothing
else but the living Goddess, the Divine Mother Herself, ready to give him any
boon he wanted — either a happy worldly life or the joy of spiritual freedom. He
was in ecstasy. He prayed for the boon of wisdom, discrimination, renunciation,
and Her uninterrupted vision, but forgot to ask the Deity for money. He felt
great peace within as he returned to the Master's room, and when asked if he
had prayed for money, was startled. He said that he had forgotten all about it.
The Master told him to go to the temple again and pray to the Divine Mother to
satisfy his immediate needs. Naren did as he was bidden, but again forgot his
mission. The same thing happened a third time. Then Naren suddenly realized
that Sri Ramakrishna himself had made him forget to ask the Divine Mother for
worldly things; perhaps he wanted Naren to lead a life of renunciation. So he
now asked Sri Ramakrishna to do something for the family. The master told the
disciple that it was not Naren's destiny to enjoy a worldly life, but assured him
that the family would be able to eke out a simple existence.
The above incident left a deep impression upon Naren's mind; it enriched his
spiritual life, for he gained a new understanding of the Godhead and Its ways in
the phenomenal universe. Naren's idea of God had hitherto been confined either
to that of a vague Impersonal Reality or to that of an extracosmic Creator
removed from the world. He now realized that the Godhead is immanent in the
creation, that after projecting the universe from within Itself, It has entered into
all created entities as life and consciousness, whether manifest or latent. This
same immanent Spirit, or the World Soul, when regarded as a person creating,
preserving, and destroying the universe, is called the Personal God, and is
worshipped by different religions through such a relationship as that of father,
mother, king, or beloved. These relationships, he came to understand, have their
appropriate symbols, and Kali is one of them.
Embodying in Herself creation and destruction, love and terror, life and death,
Kali is the symbol of the total universe. The eternal cycle of the manifestation
and non-manifestation of the universe is the breathing-out and breathing-in of
this Divine Mother. In one aspect She is death, without which there cannot be
life. She is smeared with blood, since without blood the picture of the
phenomenal universe is not complete. To the wicked who have transgressed Her
laws, She is the embodiment of terror, and to the virtuous, the benign Mother.
Before creation She contains within Her womb the seed of the universe, which is
left from the previous cycle. After the manifestation of the universe She becomes
its preserver and nourisher, and at the end of the cycle She draws it back within
Herself and remains as the undifferentiated Sakti, the creative power of
Brahman. She is non-different from Brahman. When free from the acts of
creation, preservation, and destruction, the Spirit, in Its acosmic aspect, is called
Brahman; otherwise It is known as the World Soul or the Divine Mother of the
universe. She is therefore the doorway to the realization of the Absolute; She is
the Absolute. To the daring devotee who wants to see the transcendental
Absolute, She reveals that form by withdrawing Her phenomenal aspect.
Brahman is Her transcendental aspect. She is the Great Fact of the universe,
the totality of created beings. She is the Ruler and the Controller.
All this had previously been beyond Narendra's comprehension. He had accepted
the reality of the phenomenal world and yet denied the reality of Kali. He had
been conscious of hunger and thirst, pain and pleasure, and the other
characteristics of the world, and yet he had not accepted Kali, who controlled
them all. That was why he had suffered. But on that auspicious Tuesday evening
the scales dropped from his eyes. He accepted Kali as the Divine Mother of the
universe. He became Her devotee.
Many years later he wrote to an American lady: 'Kali worship is my special fad.'
But he did not preach Her in public, because he thought that all that modern
man required was to be found in the Upanishads. Further, he realized that the
Kali symbol would not be understood by universal humanity.
Narendra enjoyed the company of the Master for six years, during which time
his spiritual life was moulded. Sri Ramakrishna was a wonderful teacher in
every sense of the word. Without imposing his ideas upon anyone, he taught
more by the silent influence of his inner life than by words or even by personal
example. To live near him demanded of the disciple purity of thought and
concentration of mind. He often appeared to his future monastic followers as
their friend and playmate. Through fun and merriment he always kept before
them the shining ideal of God-realization. He would not allow any deviation from
bodily and mental chastity, nor any compromise with truth and renunciation.
Everything else he left to the will of the Divine Mother.
Narendra was his 'marked' disciple, chosen by the Lord for a special mission. Sri
Ramakrishna kept a sharp eye on him, though he appeared to give the disciple
every opportunity to release his pent-up physical and mental energy. Before him,
Naren often romped about like a young lion cub in the presence of a firm but
indulgent parent. His spiritual radiance often startled the Master, who saw that
maya, the Great Enchantress, could not approach within 'ten feet' of that blazing
Narendra always came to the Master in the hours of his spiritual difficulties.
One time he complained that he could not meditate in the morning on account of
the shrill note of a whistle from a neighbouring mill, and was advised by the
Master to concentrate on the very sound of the whistle. In a short time he
overcame the distraction. Another time he found it difficult to forget the body at
the time of meditation. Sri Ramakrishna sharply pressed the space between
Naren's eyebrows and asked him to concentrate on that sensation. The disciple
found this method effective.
Witnessing the religious ecstasy of several devotees, Narendra one day said to
the Master that he too wanted to experience it. 'My child,' he was told, 'when a
huge elephant enters a small pond, a great commotion is set up, but when it
plunges into the Ganga, the river shows very little agitation. These devotees are
like small ponds; a little experience makes their feelings flow over the brim. But
you are a huge river.'
Another day the thought of excessive spiritual fervour frightened Naren. The
Master reassured him by saying: 'God is like an ocean of sweetness; wouldn't you
dive into it? Suppose there is a bowl filled with syrup, and you are a fly, hungry
for the sweet liquid. How would you like to drink it?' Narendra said that he
would sit on the edge of the bowl, otherwise he might be drowned in the syrup
and lose his life. 'But,' the Master said, 'you must not forget that I am talking of
the Ocean of Satchidananda, the Ocean of Immortality. Here one need not be
afraid of death. Only fools say that one should not have too much of divine
ecstasy. Can anybody carry to excess the love of God? You must dive deep in the
Ocean of God.'
On one occasion Narendra and some of his brother disciples were vehemently
arguing about God's nature — whether He was personal or impersonal, whether
Divine Incarnation was fact or myth, and so forth and so on. Narendra silenced
his opponents by his sharp power of reasoning and felt jubilant at his triumph.
Sri Ramakrishna enjoyed the discussion and after it was over sang in an ecstatic
How are you trying, O my mind,
to know the nature of God?
You are groping like a madman
locked in a dark room.
He is grasped through ecstatic love;
how can you fathom Him without it?
Only through affirmation, never negation,
can you know Him;
Neither through Veda nor through Tantra
nor the six darsanas.
All fell silent, and Narendra realized the inability of the intellect to fathom God's
In his heart of hearts Naren was a lover of God. Pointing to his eyes,
Ramakrishna said that only a bhakta possessed such a tender look; the eyes of
the jnani were generally dry. Many a time, in his later years, Narendra said,
comparing his own spiritual attitude with that of the Master: 'He was a jnani
within, but a bhakta without; but I am a bhakta within, and a jnani without.' He
meant that Ramakrishna's gigantic intellect was hidden under a thin layer of
devotion, and Narendra's devotional nature was covered by a cloak of knowledge.
We have already referred to the great depth of Sri Ramakrishna's love for his
beloved disciple. He was worried about the distress of Naren's family and one
day asked a wealthy devotee if he could not help Naren financially. Naren's
pride was wounded and he mildly scolded the Master. The latter said with tears
in his eyes: 'O my Naren! I can do anything for you, even beg from door to door.'
Narendra was deeply moved but said nothing. Many days after, he remarked,
'The Master made me his slave by his love for me.'
This great love of Sri Ramakrishna enabled Naren to face calmly the hardships
of life. Instead of hardening into a cynic, he developed a mellowness of heart.
But, as will be seen later, Naren to the end of his life was often misunderstood
by his friends. A bold thinker, he was far ahead of his time. Once he said: 'Why
should I expect to be understood? It is enough that they love me. After all, who
am I? The Mother knows best. She can do Her own work. Why should I think
myself to be indispensable?'
The poverty at home was not an altogether unmitigated evil. It drew out another
side of Naren's character. He began to feel intensely for the needy and afflicted.
Had he been nurtured in luxury, the Master used to say, he would perhaps have
become a different person — a statesman, a lawyer, an orator, or a social
reformer. But instead, he dedicated his life to the service of humanity.
Sri Ramakrishna had had the prevision of Naren's future life of renunciation.
Therefore he was quite alarmed when he came to know of the various plans
made by Naren's relatives for his marriage. Prostrating himself in the shrine of
Kali, he prayed repeatedly: 'O Mother! Do break up these plans. Do not let him
sink in the quagmire of the world.' He closely watched Naren and warned him
whenever he discovered the trace of an impure thought in his mind.
Naren's keen mind understood the subtle implications of Sri Ramakrishna's
teachings. One day the Master said that the three salient disciplines of
Vaishnavism were love of God's name, service to the devotees, and compassion
for all living beings. But he did not like the word compassion and said to the
devotees: 'How foolish to speak of compassion! Man is an insignificant worm
crawling on the earth — and he to show compassion to others! This is absurd. It
must not be compassion, but service to all. Recognize them as God's
manifestations and serve them.'
The other devotees heard the words of the Master but could hardly understand
their significance. Naren, however fathomed the meaning. Taking his young
friends aside, he said that Sri Ramakrishna's remarks had thrown wonderful
light on the philosophy of non-dualism with its discipline of non-attachment, and
on that of dualism with its discipline of love. The two were not really in conflict.
A non-dualist did not have to make his heart dry as sand, nor did he have to run
away from the world. As Brahman alone existed in all men, a non-dualist must
love all and serve all. Love, in the true sense of the word, is not possible unless
one sees God in others. Naren said that the Master's words also reconciled the
paths of knowledge and action. An illumined person did not have to remain
inactive; he could commune with Brahman through service to other embodied
beings, who also are embodiments of Brahman.
'If it be the will of God,' Naren concluded, 'I shall one day proclaim this noble
truth before the world at large. I shall make it the common property of all — the
wise and the fool, the rich and the poor, the brahmin and the pariah.'
Years later he expressed these sentiments in a noble poem which concluded with
the following words:
Thy God is here before thee now,
Revealed in all these myriad forms:
Rejecting them, where seekest thou
His presence? He who freely shares
His love with every living thing
Proffers true service unto God.
It was Sri Ramakrishna who re-educated Narendranath in the essentials of
Hinduism. He, the fulfilment of the spiritual aspirations of the three hundred
millions of Hindus for the past three thousand years, was the embodiment of the
Hindu faith. The beliefs Narendra had learnt on his mother's lap had been
shattered by a collegiate education, but the young man now came to know that
Hinduism does not consist of dogmas or creeds; it is an inner experience, deep
and inclusive, which respects all faiths, all thoughts, all efforts and all
realizations. Unity in diversity is its ideal.
Narendra further learnt that religion is a vision which, at the end, transcends all
barriers of caste and race and breaks down the limitations of time and space. He
learnt from the Master that the Personal God and worship through symbols
ultimately lead the devotee to the realization of complete oneness with the Deity.
The Master taught him the divinity of the soul, the non-duality of the Godhead,
the unity of existence, and the harmony of religions. He showed Naren by his
own example how a man in this very life could reach perfection, and the disciple
found that the Master had realized the same God-consciousness by following the
diverse disciplines of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam.
One day the Master, in an ecstatic mood, said to the devotees: 'There are many
opinions and many ways. I have seen them all and do not like them any more.
The devotees of different faiths quarrel among themselves. Let me tell you
something. You are my own people. There are no strangers around. I clearly see
that God is the whole and I am a part of Him. He is the Lord and I am His
servant. And sometimes I think He is I and I am He.'
Narendra regarded Sri Ramakrishna as the embodiment of the spirit of religion
and did not bother to know whether he was or not an Incarnation of God. He was
reluctant to cast the Master in any theological mould. It was enough for Naren if
he could see through the vista of Ramakrishna's spiritual experiences all the
aspects of the Godhead.
How did Narendra impress the other devotees of the Master, especially the
youngsters? He was their idol. They were awed by his intellect and fascinated by
his personality. In appearance he was a dynamic youth, overflowing with vigour
and vitality, having a physical frame slightly over middle height and somewhat
thickset in the shoulders. He was graceful without being feminine. He had a
strong jaw, suggesting his staunch will and fixed determination. The chest was
expansive, and the breadth of the head towards the front signified high mental
power and development.
But the most remarkable thing about him was his eyes, which Sri Ramakrishna
compared to lotus petals. They were prominent but not protruding, and part of
the time their gaze was indrawn, suggesting the habit of deep meditation; their
colour varied according to the feeling of the moment. Sometimes they would be
luminous in profundity, and sometimes they sparkled in merriment. Endowed
with the native grace of an animal, he was free in his movements. He walked
sometimes with a slow gait and sometimes with rapidity, always a part of his
mind absorbed in deep thought. And it was a delight to hear his resonant voice,
either in conversation or in music.
But when Naren was serious his face often frightened his friends. In a heated
discussion his eyes glowed. If immersed in his own thoughts, he created such an
air of aloofness that no one dared to approach him. Subject to various moods,
sometimes he showed utter impatience with his environment, and sometimes a
tenderness that melted everybody's heart. His smile was bright and infectious.
To some he was a happy dreamer, to some he lived in a real world rich with love
and beauty, but to all he unfailingly appeared a scion of an aristocratic home.
And how did the Master regard his beloved disciple? To quote his own words:
'Narendra belongs to a very high plane — the realm of the Absolute. He has a
manly nature. So many devotees come here, but there is no one like him.
'Every now and then I take stock of the devotees. I find that some are like
lotuses with ten petals, some like lotuses with a hundred petals. But among
lotuses Narendra is a thousand-petalled one.
'Other devotees may be like pots or pitchers; but Narendra is a huge water-
'Others may be like pools or tanks; but Narendra is a huge reservoir like the
'Among fish, Narendra is a huge red-eyed carp; others are like minnows or
smelts or sardines.
'Narendra is a "very big receptacle", one that can hold many things. He is like a
bamboo with a big hollow space inside.
'Narendra is not under the control of anything. He is not under the control of
attachment or sense pleasures. He is like a male pigeon. If you hold a male
pigeon by its beak, it breaks away from you; but the female pigeon keeps still. I
feel great strength when Narendra is with me in a gathering.'
Sometime about the middle of 1885 Sri Ramakrishna showed the first symptoms
of a throat ailment that later was diagnosed as cancer. Against the advice of the
physicians, he continued to give instruction to spiritual seekers, and to fall into
frequent trances. Both of these practices aggravated the illness. For the
convenience of the physicians and the devotees, he was at first removed to a
house in the northern section of Calcutta and then to a garden house at
Cossipore, a suburb of the city. Narendra and the other young disciples took
charge of nursing him. Disregarding the wishes of their guardians, the boys gave
up their studies or neglected their duties at home, at least temporarily, in order
to devote themselves heart and soul to the service of the Master. His wife, known
among the devotees as the Holy Mother, looked after the cooking; the older
devotees met the expenses. All regarded this service to the guru as a blessing
Narendra time and again showed his keen insight and mature judgement during
Sri Ramakrishna's illness. Many of the devotees, who looked upon the Master as
God's Incarnation and therefore refused to see in him any human frailty, began
to give a supernatural interpretation of his illness. They believed that it had
been brought about by the will of the Divine Mother or the Master himself to
fulfil an inscrutable purpose, and that it would be cured without any human
effort after the purpose was fulfilled. Narendra said, however, that since Sri
Ramakrishna was a combination of God and man the physical element in him
was subject to such laws of nature as birth, growth, decay, and destruction. He
refused to give the Master's disease, a natural phenomenon, any supernatural
explanation. Nonetheless, he was willing to shed his last drop of blood in the
service of Sri Ramakrishna.
Emotion plays an important part in the development of the spiritual life. While
intellect removes the obstacles, it is emotion that gives the urge to the seeker to
move forward. But mere emotionalism without the disciplines of discrimination
and renunciation often leads him astray. He often uses it as a short cut to trance
or ecstasy. Sri Ramakrishna, no doubt, danced and wept while singing God's
name and experienced frequent trances; but behind his emotion there was the
long practice of austerities and renunciation. His devotees had not witnessed the
practice of his spiritual disciplines. Some of them, especially the elderly
householders, began to display ecstasies accompanied by tears and physical
contortions, which in many cases, as later appeared, were the result of careful
rehearsal at home or mere imitation of Sri Ramakrishna's genuine trances.
Some of the devotees, who looked upon the Master as a Divine Incarnation,
thought that he had assumed their responsibilities, and therefore they relaxed
their own efforts. Others began to speculate about the part each of them was
destined to play in the new dispensation of Sri Ramakrishna. In short, those who
showed the highest emotionalism posed as the most spiritually advanced.
Narendra's alert mind soon saw this dangerous trend in their lives. He began to
make fun of the elders and warned his young brother disciples about the harmful
effect of indulging in such outbursts. Real spirituality, he told them over and
over again, was the eradication of worldly tendencies and the development of
man's higher nature. He derided their tears and trances as symptoms of nervous
disorder, which should be corrected by the power of the will, and, if necessary, by
nourishing food and proper medical treatment. Very often, he said, unwary